Jessica and I have been blogging on the same day for well over a year now, and this has never once happened: we both wrote on the same thing. It would be more surprising if it weren’t for the inspiration: Edan Lepucki’s excellent piece for The Millions about what happens when a book doesn’t sell. It’s clear that this piece has struck a chord, and I have a feeling ours won’t be the last blog posts about it.
Normally, I’d have suggested that one of us write something new, especially because there isn’t much that Jessica and I disagree about here. But I think it’s worth hearing the anecdotes we both have to share, and I hope our experiences (along with Edan’s) serve as inspiration.
Last week I met with a client whose move from west coast to east finally afforded us an opportunity to sit down face to face. He is a prodigiously talented writer whose historical novel I submitted to more than thirty houses. Although a few of the editors to whom I sent it tried to make a case for acquisition, the novel did not sell. I know literary fiction is always difficult to place, and I am acquainted with the challenges of the present market, but this novel was so gloriously written, so seamlessly researched, so peopled with terrific characters (not least a sympathetic, intelligent and interestingly flawed narrator) that its quiet-ish plot seemed a non-issue. The houses to which I submitted, however, did not agree, and while all editors were profligate in their praise, we came away with no offers. Inasmuch as rejection is something I am trained to take in stride, I still wanted to storm the meeting rooms, kick down the doors, rail against naysayers (see Miriam’s post re: poisonous invective) and ideally, have the phrase “we just don’t know how to sell this” stricken from the language. Needless to say, my recent meeting with my client was bittersweet, and we spent much of our time talking about his next book. Which is why I found Edan Lepucki’s piece in the Millions so affecting.
If you have had a book that has not sold, or even found representation, at what point do you, like Lepucki, consign it to a drawer? True, we live in an era in which self-publishing is on the rise, but both Lepucki and this particular client decided that for assorted reasons, this route is not for them. So although I tend to share clients’ Churchillian inclination to never, never, never give in, an approach that has served me well with literary novels and works in translation, sanity, pragmatism and big picture considerations of an author’s career can mean it’s time to move on.
In the past, we’ve blogged a bit about books we weren’t able to sell, and how much that frustrates us. It does. When I sign something up, I’m in love with it. The kind of getting-married-lifetime-commitment-love that one usually saves for spouses or cats. So if something doesn’t sell, I’m wounded. Being the agent, I figure I experience about 15% of the wound, with the author holding on to the other 85%. Though authors can be notorious over-sharers, I sometimes feel like they shut down when their book doesn’t sell, and I often don’t know what’s going on inside their heads. So I was eager to read this piece over on The Millions by Edan Lepucki.
Her reaction, after dealing with the hurt and disappointment, is exactly the way I’d hope my clients would react: move right on to the next thing. But move on with the knowledge gained from the process submitting the first book, learning from whatever helpful comments might have been offered. I have an author who is now working on his second book. The first didn’t sell. We were bummed, to say the least, but he jumped into the second one having synthesized what all of the editors had to say (lucky for him, editors liked his book enough to provide lots of thoughts–rare these days). Not only was he eager to get back to work, but he was eager to implement what he’d learned. And though we haven’t gotten to the submission part of things yet, I know that we’re much better positioned to succeed this time around, all because he was able to both accept the rejection and embrace the criticism. That combination is going to serve him very well.